Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Race on Boston's stages, Part I

The young Paul Robeson. Eighty years after his Othello, it's still rare to see an African-American, Latino or Asian Hamlet, Lear or Macbeth.

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of conversations devoted to questions of race in the Boston theatre.  In this post, I will be sharing space with my IRNE colleague Beverly Creasey, who covers theatre on her own blog, the Boston Arts Review (which, btw, you should read regularly). I asked Beverly to engage in this dialogue as I felt she could offer a unique perspective on issues that have become top-of-mind again for the community after a spirited forum at last summer’s Theatre Communication Group conference, and the announcement of a “Diversity/Inclusion/Gender Parity Task Force” initiative by StageSource.  So without further ado -

TG: Now Beverly, you've been involved in what has been called "non-traditional" casting for a long time – maybe since its beginnings; you were one of the first advocates for the practice locally. I can remember when critics like Arthur Friedman of the Herald used to question in print whether actors of color could convincingly play “white” roles, so I appreciate your pioneering work.  But tell me a little bit more about your efforts in this area, and how you feel the casting situation has changed in Boston.

BC: Well, for a little background on “Non-Traditional Casting” (NTC): In 1986 the Theater Communications Group (TCG) did a study which revealed an appalling pattern of exclusion for a lot of Americans in what was supposed to be their own theatre. Something like 90% of the professional productions in the U.S were cast with Caucasian actors. The TCG then began an initiative to promote access to non-white actors and actors with disabilities so that casting people would see the possibilities (and advantages) of hiring/casting Chekhov or Shakespeare or Wilde with actors who reflect who we all are. (Imagine the resonance of a physically challenged actor ruminating on his disabilities as Richard III, or a black actor in Chekhov discussing serfdom – i.e., slavery. Thanks to NTC, I have seen both.)

So I worked with TCG on a Boston conference and then ran the Boston NTC file (of actors, playwrights, directors, tech people etc.) until it was adopted by StageSource as their "unity file." This was essentially before Internet access. Now you can go to the StageSource website and pull up the "actors of color" file. I know it's hard now to believe that this was even an issue, because today most of Boston's theaters cast non-traditionally – to some extent - as a matter of course. So NTC has been an unqualified success. The excuse used by theaters back in the day to exclude actors of color was always some variant of "We cast the best actor for the role," which of course was code for "the best white actor” – meaning trained at the right school, familiar with the right people, more acceptable to the subscription audience, etc. I thought that excuse was a thing of the past!

TG: The bottom line then is that the situation slowly improved for actors of color, and there seemed to be a new understanding among casting directors – that many roles, particularly classical ones, were much more widely castable than (white) theatrical tradition had dictated. But recently you’ve seen some casting decisions that have disturbed you, can you tell me more about that?

BC: Well, this past year I've noticed something disturbing recurring several times. (I see about 200 small and large theater productions a year). I've seen repeated instances of the casting of white actors in parts either specified for, or originated by, actors of color, like the “Brother” role in Songs for a New World.

TG: So in an ironic twist, you began to see casting of white people in those few roles that had long been reserved for actors of color.

BC: Exactly. Even though it's absurd to hear a white man singing/talking about being black. Which by the way, has happened twice to Jason Robert Brown's Songs. Two different productions in less than a year!

TG: Maybe we should re-title that one Songs for a White World . . .

BC: What are these people thinking? They didn't even have the sense to change the lines and take out the ethnic references! It also happened to A Chorus Line this summer, at a big Equity company that has often cast nationally - a white actress played the role of the Asian-American dancer (who even talks about being stereotyped!!). I asked why this was the case and was told they “couldn't find anyone." Now this has been quite a year for Asian-American women on the stage and just off the top of my head (without consulting StageSource) I can name four local actresses. So the real answer is they didn't try very hard. They didn't go to StageSource. They didn't call me. There aren't many roles out there for actors of color, so doesn't it seem cruel to take away the few opportunities there are? A critic wryly suggested to me that this is just turnabout-fair-play for Non-Traditional Casting - I would have let out a blood-curdling scream, but we were in a theater at the time.

TG: Hmmm - was that critic me? (Thanks for not screaming, btw). But seriously, just to play devil's advocate for a minute - I'm wondering if we could pursue the reasoning behind that excuse a little further, and either find the flaw in it, or begin to at least better understand it. For if actors of color are now being represented on many, if not most, Boston stages, doesn't the urgency of non-traditional casting somewhat diminish? And doesn't that mean that the very logic of NTC can be flip-flopped (sorry, Governor Romney) in some cases? I mean last time I checked, just about every actor I know was looking for work, not just the actors of color! And don't casting directors work with networks of people they know and trust, who inevitably often reflect their own experience and ethnicity?

But at this point I'd like to take a break - Beverly and I (along with, I hope, other members of the Boston theatre community) will chew on those arguments further in the next post in this ongoing series.

(To be continued . . .)


  1. The actor Canada Lee made history in 1946 when he played Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi - the first time an African-American actor played a Caucasian character on Broadway, reportedly. Here he is having the makeup applied; a black actor wearing whiteface instead of the other way around.


  2. What a strange and disturbing photograph!